Is A Tomato A Fruit?

Posted on Sat, Dec 3 2022 in Bob's Journal

One of the popular gotcha questions in politics at the moment is "What is a woman?". It only has four words, and most of us can identify a woman with only a quick glance. It's used as the primary example of how the "leftists" are ignoring reality, letting their "woke" ideas cloud an obviously simple question. Yet any attempt to answer it turns out to be tautological ("A woman is someone who society accepts as a woman"), overly simplistic ("A woman is someone who can have children"), or tediously long ("Someone with two X chromosomes, plus those with this syndrome but excluding those with this disorder unless...")

This complexity is not limited to matters of gender. Almost everything we deal with on a daily basis suffers the same complications. A common example is the question "Is cereal a soup?" If we try to define the characteristics that make something a soup, we'll likely come to the conclusion that cereal fits the definition, even though we understand intuitively that they're very different things. Or we may overcorrect to suit our intuition and create ad-hoc restrictions that rule out things we know are soups.

The problem, if we want to see it that way, is that our minds are neural networks. We didn't learn what a chair was by being given a rigorous definition. Rather, we were exposed to thousands of examples of things called "chairs" until our brains were trained to recognize them on sight. Any attempt to clearly define a chair with a rigorous definition is post-hoc, and is likely to fall apart at the boundary between "chair" and "not chair".

This is where, in my opinion, a lot of philosophy goes wrong. It wants to break reality down into clearly delineated categories, and reality simply can't be mapped that way. Our artificial buckets serve many useful purposes. They allow us to deal with a complicated reality in a way that doesn't overwhelm us, but that convenience comes with a cost.

Our concepts are situational. What we consider a fruit is very different depending on if we're making a fruit salad or labeling the parts of a plant for botany. It's not enough to ask what something is. We also need to know why we want to know what something is.

In normal conversation we don't trouble ourselves with such rigor. If someone asks us to bring another chair for the dining room table we don't ask for clarification or drag over the nearest recliner. We intuitively use the purpose to arrive at the expected definition.

So, if someone decides to ambush you with "What is a woman," ask them what they hope to achieve using that definition.